We take a look at the case for Ruben Loftus-Cheek to start for England at this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Predicting the numbers a World Cup squad will wear at this year’s tournament in Russia is always an exercise fraught with futility, but one glaring issue rears its head for the traditionalists when you take a look at the England squad.
There are the obvious choices. Harry Kane and Dele Alli practically have their names printed on the 9 and 10 shirts already. John Stones will wear 5, Raheem Sterling 7, Danny Rose 3, and Kyle Walker could pick up either 2 or 4, depending on whether manager Gareth Southgate will start him as a third centre back or his preferred right-back role.
The other spots in the 1-11 should also be filled out with ease once decisions are made on the regular starting side. One of Jordan Pickford or Jack Butland will wear 1, Gary Cahill or Harry Maguire will almost certainly sport 6, Jordan Henderson is a certainty to wear 4 if it is not designated to Walker, and 11 looks to be a toss up between Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford, and Jesse Lingard.
The omission there is the number 8, and with the outstanding candidate Jack Wilshere left behind, it’s likely Henderson or Eric Dier will fill that hole – but do either of those two really feel like a number eight? A gallivanting, box-to box colossus of energy, impetus, and attacking drive that a classic English 8 has always been – or at least strived to be?
Both Dier and Henderson – masters of sideways passing and holding the house – have never fit that stereotype, but in Ruben Loftus-Cheek, England possess a midfield x-factor that, while not tested under the pressures of a World Cup, could be thrust into that role far quicker than expected thanks to a combination of prodigious talent, a lack of much alternative, and a little faith from the man in charge.
The 22-year-old has enjoyed an excellent campaign with Crystal Palace, starring for the Eagles in their revival under Roy Hodgson as they pulled away from the relegation zone.
Loftus-Cheek was positioned largely on the left of a midfield four at Palace that operated very narrowly, with James McArthur his opposite number on the right, flanking Yohan Cabaye and Luka Milovojevic.
With Milovojevic covering, the other three had licence to get forward and, in particular for the wide men, flood the box, as Palace hit risky balls towards the mobile front-pairing of Andros Townsend and the wonderful Wilfried Zaha.
Loftus-Cheek excelled, both at getting on the end of passes in dangerous positions and at carrying the ball powerfully himself. The loanee drew an average of 2.6 fouls per game (per WhoScored.com) and also makes three successful dribbles per game, no doubt helped by a strong, bulky frame belying his youthfulness.
A dribbling option centrally for England is sorely lacking after the loss of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin to injury and, unless Southgate risks Lingard in an unproven central-midfield role, a Plan-B ball-carrier and late-arriving attacking option virtually doesn’t exist outside of the Chelsea youngster.
But Loftus-Cheek provides more than just a strong midfield dribbler. He’s comfortable in his passing, with the joint-highest passing percentage among Palace players to have played at least 20 games this season (82.4%, tied with Cabaye) and ranks third for assists, with three, and makes at least one key pass per game too – all statistics that suit Southgate’s passing style.
A picture builds of a confident young player, ideal for the mould of the England number eight. Loftus-Cheek is by no means the finished article, however. He’s only scored twice this season, he can be a bit clunky in the air, and his defensive contribution to the side can lack at times – which was a driving factor behind initially moving him to the left-side of midfield.
But the England set-up is perfect for him to accentuate his good points and hide his weaknesses. With three-centre backs, at least one full-back,and and one of Dier or Henderson keeping things in check behind him, Loftus-Cheek can be provided with the freedom to maraud around the pitch and engage with the likely attacking trio of Kane, Sterling, and Alli or Rashford.
And with the burden of aerial balls falling on the two Tottenham attackers, Loftus-Cheek can focus on only contesting favourable crosses and getting himself in good positions around the box, something he is excellent at doing.
It looks like Southgate knows all this too, commenting to the Sun: “He’s having a huge impact on the game and there’s still more to come.
“He’s 6ft 4ins, technically outstanding, he can beat players, dribble past players, retain the ball and slide passes.
“I’m thinking ‘go on, go again’, he just needs to keep progressing and time to do that.”
That Southgate is an admirer is no surprise, considering the Lewisham native was a key component of England’s Toulon Tournament victory under Southgate in 2016, employing a midfield diamond with Loftus-Cheek at its peak, so high you could almost consider him a striker, the all-around fulcrum that controlled the play as England won their first Toulon title in 22 years.
Loftus-Cheeks skillset was on full show, his strength, eye for a pass, dribbling ability, and decision making were all on point, and it’s clear Southgate quickly developed a lot of trust in him to make him the lynchpin of that side.
A group-stage start is inevitable with those kind of hints, and it will be nothing more than what Loftus-Cheek deserves – and, in truth, what England need.
The central pairing of Dier, a converted centre-back, and Henderson, whose noted lack of forward movement has caused frustration to many a Liverpool and England fan throughout his time in the spotlight, sounds insipid, boring, and a little miserable considering this is supposed to be a breakthrough for a new generation for England.
The squad announcement video – a wonderful coming together of youths from across the country all championing their local heroes and inspirations – was a genuinely fantastic piece of work, and shows off the inclusive, youth-driven England that this team wants to help bring about.
Already Southgate’s willingness to experiment with formation, shape, andstyle has proved promising, and Loftus-Cheek’s man-of-the-match display in one such friendly against Germany was what arguably secured him his seat on the plane.
A reliance on the front three developed somewhat as a common theme throughout those practice games, but in Loftus-Cheek England possess the right player to negate that reliance, and provide a spark from deep that can l unlock a tight defence – a simple quality so often found lacking in English centre midfielders.
Loftus-Cheek has been compared to Michael Ballack at times during his ascent to the top, and it was a starring season with Bayer Leverkusen before playing his part in Germany reaching the World Cup final in 2002 that cementedthe young, then 25yearold’s Ballack’s place firmly at the midfield top table.
Loftus-Cheek, just 22 remember, is primed for a similar revolution this June, and with the protectiona nd faith offered to him by Southgate, he should be a no brainer fort hat number eight jersey.
Alex Dunne, Pundit Arena.